TORONTO — Auston Matthews scored on the power play at 13:10 of overtime as the Toronto Maple Leafs rallied past the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 on Friday.
Toronto staged an improbable comeback after trailing 3-0 with under four minutes remaining in regulation to force a fifth and deciding game in their qualifying round series.
William Nylander, John Tavares and Zach Hyman scored 3:32 apart late in the third for the Leafs, while Frederik Andersen stopped 36 shots.
Matthews had two assists for Toronto, which entered the NHL’s 24-team restart to the pandemic-delayed campaign as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Nylander, Tavares and Hyman also had helpers.
Cam Atkinson, Vladislav Gavrikov and Boone Jenner replied for Columbus, the No. 9 seed. Elvis Merzlikins made 49 saves in first post-season start.
Game 5 goes Sunday night.
After Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno took a penalty in the extra period, Tavares found Matthews with a cross-ice feed and he beat Merzlikins on a one-timer as the Leafs spilled over the bench to celebrate a result that looked improbable late in the third.
Merzlikins, who stopped all 21 shots he faced for Columbus in Thursday’s stunning 4-3 overtime victory after coming on in relief of Joonas Korpisalo with the Blue Jackets down 3-0 midway through the second period, was unbeatable with 58 straight saves in the series until Nylander scored with 3:57 left in regulation to get his team going with Andersen on the bench.
Tavares then roofed a shot upstairs 49 seconds later with Toronto still playing 6-on-5 to get to within 3-2. And after Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly thwarted an empty-net goal at the other end, Matthews found Hyman in the slot, and he snuck a shot under Merzlikins with 22.2 seconds left to completely flip the script.
The 26-year-old Merzlikins, who’s playing his first season in North America and was outstanding when Korpisalo was hurt before the schedule was suspended in March because of COVID-19, dropped his head in despair as the Leafs celebrated inside an empty Scotiabank Arena.
Toronto looked dead and buried at 14:18 of the third when Foligno stole the puck from Rielly at the Leafs blue line and fed Jenner, who scored upstairs on Andersen. Rielly smashed his stick on the bench in frustration before the late drama.
Wearing their whites jerseys as the road team for the second straight night, the Leafs trailed 1-0 after the first, and Columbus doubled that lead at 4:40 of the second when Gavrikov’s point shot went off Toronto winger Mitch Marner’s stick and past Andersen.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe loaded up his first line with Marner, Matthews and Tavares looking for a spark, but Toronto wasn’t able to break through as the period wore on against the stingy Blue Jackets.
Veteran Leafs forward Jason Spezza, the oldest player on the team at age 37, dropped the gloves with Dean Kukan trying to light a fire of his own. Columbus, however, stood firm and led by two heading to the third against an opponent that looked to be searching for answers.
The Leafs, who lost bruising defenceman Jake Muzzin to injury late in Game 2, suffered that demoralizing setback in Game 3, with Keefe criticizing his team’s mindset and execution, even as it built its three-goal advantage, especially coming off one of its best performances of the season in a clinical 3-0 shutout in Game 2.
Toronto, which general manager Kyle Dubas said before the Stanley Cup tournament had matured through the process of getting prepared for the restart following a rollercoaster season and back-to-back playoff losses to the Boston Bruins, spent a lot of time working on its defensive play throughout summer training camp.
But issues the Leafs thought were fixed, or at least under control, bubbled to the surface as sloppy play with the puck, a lack of focus and system breakdowns cost them in falling behind 2-1 in the series.
With less than 21 hours to prepare after a Game 3 that didn’t end until 11:23 p.m. ET on Thursday and gave Toronto fans ugly flashbacks to the team’s three-goal collapse in Game 7 against Boston in 2013, the Leafs initially promoted 18-year-old Nick Robertson into their top-6 forward group alongside Tavares and Nylander.
But it was Columbus that opened the scoring at 3:58 of the first when Leafs defenceman Justin Holl made a bad read at the offensive blue line. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who completed his Game 3 hat trick in overtime and took over the series at times, slid the puck over to Atkinson on a 2-on-1, and he roofed his second past Andersen.